For those familiar with James Merrill’s poetry, reading Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art for the first time is like reading it again. Hammer’s subject is threefold: Merrill’s life, Merrill’s art, and the relationship between that life and art. This is precisely Merrill’s own threefold subject throughout his poetry. The result, then, is not so much a biography of discovery and revelation as one of confirmation and filling-in-the-gaps. It is its own kind of delight to read because almost everything within it is already familiar: here are all of the characters from the poetry (including Merrill himself) converted by the biographer’s art back into the people they were, all gathered together between two covers in a chronological narrative that sheds new light on them without exposing them to any kind of over-factual fluorescent glare. That is, there’s no presumption that we’re being told who...

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